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Former Morris teacher must register as sex offender

Published: Wednesday, Jan. 8, 2014 5:30 a.m. CDT

MORRIS – Michelle Peterson has been waiting for more than three years for the man who hurt her son to apologize.

Her wait ended Tuesday.

“I’ve said from the beginning I want an apology for my son for putting him through all of this,” she said. “It was emotional. It put a sting of tears in my eyes. But I don’t know if he understands the gravity of what he put Andrew through.

“I’m waiting for the day I can forgive him. Today is not that day,” Peterson said.

In court Tuesday, former Morris Community High School teacher Steffen Balegno of Coal City was sentenced after being found guilty in November of unlawful grooming and indecent solicitation of a child.

Judge Robert Marsaglia sentenced Balegno to 180 days in jail and 30 months probation. He has to register as a sex offender for 10 years. Of the 180 days, Balegno will serve 60 days starting Feb. 3. Balegno will receive day-for-day credit, so with good behavior it is likely he will serve 30 days, Grundy County State’s Attorney Jason Helland said.

The remaining 120 days is to be served after the probation and if Balegno is compliant, Helland said the defense will likely ask for reconsideration of the remaining time, which will probably be granted without an objection from the prosecution.

“I think Judge Marsaglia was very thoughtful in his sentencing and we accept it,” Balegno’s attorney Raymond Wigell said after the court hearing.

Balegno’s charges stem from texts he exchanged with his then-student Andrew Koscik. The Morris Daily Herald does not usually identify victims of abuse, but Koscik agreed to let his name be used.

Before the sentencing, Balegno made a statement to the judge, during which time he turned to Koscik and his family sitting in the audience and said he was sorry.

“I apologize to Andrew and his family for any pain I have caused in the last three years,” he said.

Wigell said he would not ask to have the sentence reconsidered, but he declined to comment on whether an appeal would be filed. The defense has 30 days to file an appeal.

Before the sentencing, the judge denied the defense’s motion for a new trial.

“We’re just happy he is going to have to register as a sex offender for 10 years,” Helland said. “In our eyes that is important because we don’t want Mr. Balegno working in a school and put in an atmosphere to abuse the trust of students.”

Balegno also is not allowed to have contact with Koscik or anyone under the age of 18 who is not a family member. He also was fined $2,000, plus other court costs, his Internet use is to be controlled through his probation and he cannot use social media.

“I’m ready to go back to school and put this behind me, but also keep the experience with me to put to use in my future and to help people,” Koscik said. “I hope going through with the trial helps bring confidence for someone else to come forward [if they are in a similar situation].”

Koscik said he was grateful to the Morris High School board, administration and especially Principal Kelly Hussey for their support when the situation came to light.

Texts started in 2010

Balegno is a former industrial arts teacher who was arrested in January 2012. Koscik, now in college, was 16 when the texting began.

During the trial, Assistant State’s Attorney Peter Siena said that Balegno used his cellphone in an attempt to entice a child through texting, resulting in Balegno intending to commit criminal sexual abuse.

In his testimony, Balegno said he was trying to teach the boy a lesson in how to defend himself and say no by pushing him with the texts. Wigell called the texts between the teacher and student “banter between males.”

More than 500 texts recovered from the student’s phone were entered into evidence. Authorities have said there were more than 5,000 texts from June to October 2010 between Balegno and Koscik.

The text exchanges were sometimes done in the middle of the night and contained inappropriate messages, including Balegno offering paintball equipment and money if the student would allow him to perform sexual acts on him. Koscik’s texts to the teacher varied. He sometimes initiated the inappropriateness and at one point said “stop.”

During the hearing Tuesday, Siena argued although there were no physical criminal acts done to Koscik, Balegno abused his authority as a teacher and coach and needs to be punished. Siena recommended 180 days in jail, 30 months probation, a $4,000 fine, registration as a sex offender and that he not have access to the Internet or social media.

Wigell agreed with the probation. But said his client had already “paid very dearly for his mistake” since he can no longer teach or be a firefighter. He said Balegno’s evaluation indicated no pedophile characteristics and that he never intended for anything physical to occur. Wigell recommended he be sentenced to 180 days, but the whole sentence to be deferred until after the probation and enforced if he broke probation requirements.

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